Easter 5, Year C
Readings: Acts 11:1–18 Psalm 148 Revelation 21:1–6 John 13:31–35
A new vision from Peter, a new heaven and earth in the Revelations reading for today, a new commandment from Jesus. It must be spring. Our readings have us throwing open the theological windows, dragging the eschatological rugs to the back yard to beat the dust out, putting up new wallpaper on how to live out our faith all through the place. A feast of freshness, a bevy of beginnings, a nest of newness.
Are we addicted to the new? Do we pant after cars or cuisines or consumer goods just because they are a bit different than the ones we have now? We do get bored. We do get tired of same old, same old. Advertizers don’t have to work very hard to hook us with the ‘new’ label: new size, new shape, new label even, and we can be lured into buying it.
The bible is doing something different. Peter’s dream is about a new way of looking at the same world. A more inclusive way of looking. On the surface it’s about the kosher laws, what is permitted to be eaten and what is not. The early Christian community takes it to apply much more widely: who’s in. The big question in those days was about non-Jews. They were welcomed to the movement, but what did they have to do to get in? Be circumcised (if they were male)? Follow all the laws for Jews around clothing, disease, interest, the sabbath, facial hair as well as food?
The United Church of Canada had similar challenges twenty-five ago. Could self-declared gay and lesbian people be ministers? Could they even be members of the church? No, not at all, said some. Yes, with conditions, said others. If they are celebate. That’s not fair, said others. Gay and lesbian people said we have just as much right as anyone to be ministers if we feel called to it. Just like two thousand years earlier, it was not an easy discussion.
This old problem of the ins and the outs will never go away. If someone wants to get in, that gives a lot of power to the person or group who gets to say yes or no. It surfaces early, at school, with the bully wielding his or her power this way, shunning people, or making them pay dearly to get into the in group. Hazing, a crackdown on so-called illegal immigrants, membership fees at clubs–there are many forms of this kind of power over.
Our faith is about power with. The early church comes to the conclusion that the movement is a new thing, and that many of the old rules don’t apply, at least the ones about circumcision and diet and so on. And the one we heard earlier--love one another–is not exactly new. It’s been around for a long time. But John is painting Jesus as the new Moses except with only this one commandment. The Golden Rule is OK, but love one takes it to another level. Treating others as I want to be treated leads to respect. That’s a good thing, but it’s not the same as loving others.
Speaking of respect, today is Workers’ Memorial Day. Can you handle some numbers, some startling numbers? According to the International Labour Organization: Each year, more than two million women and men die as a result of work‑related accidents and diseases; Workers suffer approximately 270 million accidents each year, and fall victim to some 160 million incidents of work‑related illnesses; Hazardous substances kill 440,000 workers annually – asbestos alone claims 100,000 lives; One worker dies every 15 seconds worldwide. If our service lasts an hour, that’s 240 people across the globe. 6,000 workers die every day. Far more people die at work than fighting wars. Respect is lacking, you could say. Love is absent altogether.
What would the workplace be like if respect were a key component? Never mind love for the moment, just respect for starters. Three hundred and fifty bodies have already been recovered from that collapsed factory in Dacca, Bangladesh. Nine hundred are still missing. Twenty-five hundred survived. Daughters, sisters, mothers, aunts. The deaths of these workers has generated a great deal of media coverage. But we heard nothing in the news about the other five thousand people who died on the job that day. Mines cave in, scaffolding collapses, heavy equipment falls over, factories go up in flames, equipment fails, gases leak. And on and on. Cheap goods are not a bargain after all. Diamonds, or food, or smart phones from low wage economies may be very, very costly to someone, to some family hearing the news about a loved one who won’t be coming home today after all.
A new thing. The Golden Rule would be a start: do unto others what you would have them do unto you whether they own the factory or work in it. What would respect for all workers look like, and how will we get there? Let’s ask Mary Harris Jones, better known as Mother Jones. Mary Harris became a feisty organizer for workers’s right in the nineteenth century. She was born in Cork, and left Ireland with her family when she was a teenager, some time in the 1850s. She attended a Catholic school in Toronto before moving to Chicago. It took two tragedies to turn into an activist. Her husband, George Jones and four children all died of yellow fever in Memphis, Tennessee in 1867. She went back to Chicago, started another dressmaking business, and four years later lost everything in the Great Fire of 1871. Her husband had been a foundry worker, and she somehow got mixed up with the United Mine Workers Union in a time of vicious struggle between mine owners and workers.
Jones believed in family. A man should make enough that his wife could stay home with the kids. She became a socialist. She organized miners. She organized garment workers. She organized the wives and daughters of miners to put on demonstrations in support of the men. At one point, a district attorney in Pennsylvania called her “the most dangerous woman in America” because, as he put it, “with one crook of her finger, she could get twenty thousand men to lay down.” She was arrested. She was sued. She kept going. Her motto? “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”
Who’s in? Who gets in to the high priced events to speak to decision makers? Who can get in to the inner circle, whether that’s government, or the parent advisory council or the team? It’s always about power. Who has it, who wants it, how it gets shared. Love one another. Give your power away, he said. Lavish it on the person with the dread disease, the traveler mugged and lying on the road, the child, the tax collector. Oh, oh. This is April 28. Who has a good word for the tax collector at this time of year?
Here in Canada, we’ll probably tighten up the temporary foreign workers program now that abuses have been exposed. We’re all temporary foreign workers in a way. Why can’t the love command apply to work, to international arrangements about capital and labour and workers’ rights and human rights? Why do some of us end with more houses, more vehicles, more toys, more power than we can ever use or earth can sustain, and others end up working for two dollars a day in conditions that can kill or injure us? Where is the vision of a world more just? It’s here, in this church, and many other places.
Our efforts to focus on this mission here, our telling it, will be contagioius, people coming to join us to build a world more just. We have to pay attention to what we wish for. If new people do show up, they will have suggestions, ideas, visions that are slightly different. Then what? How do we know whose vision to honour? What ideas to try?
My Scottish grandmother used to say you had to be lying in High Street cemetery for twenty years before you were really accepted in Edinburgh. That would be reassuring to newcomers to the city, I’m sure. At least there was a definite date for getting in.
Maybe it doesn’t have to take so long. Maybe there are ways to honour different visions. A couple of professors at Harvard, Roger Fisher and William Ury, put out a great little book thirty years ago on negotiating called Getting to Yes. They had come up with a few simple and powerful ideas to help people get along, get to yes. One of the ideas is to base negotiation on interests, not positions. Positions are often the source of conflict. When we’re playing at the beach, we can’t both have the digger right now but maybe there is a creative solution, instead of win-lose scenario. Ury and Fisher suggest all parties to a conflict state their interests, the things behind their position that matter, and then work together to meet everyone’s interests. It’s a surprisingly effect technique.
At church, positions are sometimes called traditions. “We’ve never done it that way before.” What we usually mean is that we have conventions. Our tradition is worship, for example. Our convention is doing it this way, at this time, with this kind of flavor or leadership. Today’s scriptures seem to be calling us to look intensely at ourselves and our attachment to the way things are presently. When the bible talks about a new thing, it isn’t talking about superficial change, a new package, a new colour. It’s talking about seeing ourselves as ‘in’–accepted, needed, loved. It’s talking about seeing ourselves with new possibilities, seeing ourselves as God sees us, full of yearning and capacity for respecting others, and going beyond: transcending ourselves to love others. So who’s in?